This blog has been critical of the BBC for some time. We've seen discrimination on BBC children's services including Newsround, and we've also found examples of dishonesty with audiences and the public.
So could the Corporation's general election coverage be biased?
Ed Balls thought not when he said: "The BBC has fought valiantly to be fair and balanced, but Sky News and most of the newspapers are deeply partisan." But others believed that Andrew Marr was too willing to support Cameron on last Sunday's Andrew Marr Show. We saw the day's newspapers apparently strewn on a table, possibly sending a subliminal message from the Mail on Sunday headline: Gordon won't be getting my vote.
Now The Mail on Sunday was responsible for publishing 'leaked' details of the BBC impartiality summit on 22 October 2006. And a week later it was the paper chosen by BBC Director-General Mark Thompson to deny that the impartiality summit was ever intended to be kept under wraps. In his attempt to prove the point, Mark wrote:
Far from being secret, it was streamed live on the Internet.
Ever cautious, I wrote to ask further details. Below is part of my email to Mark Thompson sent on 2 November 2006:
You told the Mail group that far from being secret, the summit was streamed on the Internet. Please can you let me know when and where details of how to watch the summit were made available to the public? Also, is there any chance of the stream being made available again for those who missed it first time around?
Not having received a response (see also this blog entry) I chased up the matter on 8 November 2006 with Helen Boaden:
I have been trying, so far without any success, to find out when and where Internet streaming of the BBC's "impartiality summit" was made public. You commented about this in your recent blog, and some people asked for more information. Mark Thompson repeated the assertion in an article for the Mail group of newspapers.
A reply was received on Thursday afternoon, 9 November 2006, from Katherine Humphreys of the BBC Governance Unit (excerpt):
The seminar was indeed broadcast live on the Internet via the BBC Governors website. It was a one-off, live broadcast. The seminar is part of a wider project to identify the digital and 21st century challenges to impartiality in broadcasting. The project demonstrates the BBC's continuing commitment to delivering independent, accurate and unbiased programming. The project report will be published next year and key inputs to the project (including the seminar transcript) will be published as appendices.
My follow-up (in part):
Please could you tell me where the BBC had previously publicised the Impartiality Seminar, and was there a publicly visible web link whilst the
Seminar was in progress?
The BBC responded on 13 November 2006 that "there was a publicly visible weblink to the webcast, this was on the Governors website at www.bbcgovernors.co.uk where it was publicised in advance."
However a check of the archived copy of the Governors site does not confirm that claim. The events diary makes no mention of the impartiality seminar which took place on 22 September 2006. Neither, as far as I can see, was there any visible publicity or link on the BBC Governors' website in September 2006.
When the BBC eventually published their report on impartiality, From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, many people noted a comment by Andrew Marr. He said that the BBC is "a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people." All this, according to Mr Marr, "creates an innate liberal bias inside the BBC."
I have asked Mr Marr about this comment. I was interested in his reasons for believing the BBC employs a higher proportion of gay people than is to be found in the general population, and I also wanted to know why, if true, that would help to create a liberal bias inside the BBC. Despite several reminders Andrew Marr has not replied to correspondence, casting doubt on the integrity of one of the BBC's most senior journalists and the value of their impartiality seminar (pdf) as a whole.
In her blog, Helen Boaden wrote: When I first joined the BBC I asked a very experienced and subtle journalist what was meant by BBC impartiality. "It means we don’t take sides," he said. "We don’t take sides either explicitly or implicitly. We test all opinion toughly but fairly and we let the audience make up their own minds."
According to From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel, "The BBC’s impartiality is now part of the scenery during a general election – accepted, expected and taken for granted."
Edit note 4 May 2010 (6.05pm): It has been brought to my attention that the Impartiality Seminar was mentioned the day before it took place in an article by Michael Grade about how to achieve impartiality in the digital age.